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Slayton: Still Working

12/30/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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South Strafford
"That will be two dollars and ten cents... out of five."

(HOST) To conclude our encore presentation of last summer's joint project with the Billings Farm and Museum on Vermont's General Stores, commentator Tom Slayton looks at their survival - and their relevance - in today's Vermont.

(SLAYTON) Most of Vermont's general stores take quiet pleasure in being a little old-fashioned. But are they anachronisms, out of touch with today's fast-paced and fast-changing world? It's a fair question, especially in light of the undeniable fact that these stores often operate on paper-thin profit margins, and occasionally fail as businesses.

You could argue that this is true because the stores are no longer necessary and can't compete. Supermarkets sell groceries. Chain stores sell everything from clothing to hardware. And convenience stores sell beer, wine, cigarettes, and gas. Who needs the general store any more?

However, don't ask that question in Woodstock or Greensboro, or Norwich or any other Vermont town that loves its general store. There are a lot of those towns and they want their stores to stay open.

Although best known for its landscape of farmed fields and Green Mountains, Vermont - at least a lot of it - is actually a village culture. Villages and small cities capture the essence of Vermont. They are where most Vermonters meet and work. And they are often distinctive and unusual expressions of Vermont's history and, if you will, its soul.

General stores remain an essential part of small-town Vermont. And that fact is part of why they have survived here. Vermont - especially rural and small-town Vermont - seems to be a good environment for these stores.

In South Woodstock for example, the South Woodstock Country Store's deli is busy from early morning to late afternoon. Local people stop by for a quick breakfast, a few words with their neighbor or the storekeeper, and they grab a newspaper on their way out. In Tunbridge, Felchville, or South Strafford, it's a long drive to pick up eggs, milk, or bread, and so the local store in each town saves its customers time and gas a few times each week.

Everyone around Norwich and beyond seems to love Dan & Whit's for its wide array of merchandise and friendly service. And the clientele of F.H. Gillingham's goes far beyond Woodstock. People from the entire region shop for specialty items there, and the local schools send classes of youngsters over to hear about the store's long and colorful history - a history that is still unfolding.

Perhaps these stores are thriving simply because people want them to thrive. They are a part of what makes each village distinctive, after all. And Vermonters have long treasured their state's distinctiveness.

How have these stores stayed viable despite the changes wrought by technology, the automobile, the highly competitive retail environment, and the passage of time? Well, the short answer is, they have changed with the times. Instead of bins of flour and soda crackers, they now sell fishing worms, fine wine - and work gloves. They now draw customers in with cold drinks and a good deli instead of checkers around the wood stove on a wintry night.
And the best of them still are, as one store owner has described them, "the beating heart of their community."


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